The Story of the Vestal Virgins
by Tara L. Reynolds
Fire was seen as a sacred element in primitive and ancient times; it gave warmth and was a necessity for survival. In ancient Rome, the sacredness of fire was symbolized in the form of a goddess, Vesta.
She was seen as the divine personification of fire, as fire itself. The Vestal Virgins tended this sacred fire, and it was a very prestigious job to be had. It seems that the Vestal Virgins, along with their practices and their goddess, stood for purification in all of its aspects.
Since fire was seen as pure and destructive rather than having the ability to create, the Priestesses of Vesta were required to be virgins, to become entirely one with the sterility of fire. Vestals were appointed at no more than ten years of age, and had to meet certain requirements.
"They were to be perfect in form and all their senses, to be free born, have both parents still living and be patricians".1
The priestesses were required to complete 30 years’ service, at which time they could retire and marry if they chose. Scholars suggest that 30 years was selected as that's the time period of a woman's greatest fertility.2 When a girl was chosen to be a Vestal, she made her vow to Rome and to Vesta with the High Priest. After the ceremony, her hair was cut short and wrapped with a white veil. She was then robed in the attire of the Vestal. There are theories as to why the priestesses were required to be virgins; one is that they wouldn't then become connected to another Roman family, which ensured their lives were completely and faithfully devoted to Vesta. Others said that it was seen as sacred and of high status for them to be virgins and pure.3
The Vestals wore only white clothing and a band around their heads called an infula. This band was made of white wool and was wrapped several times around their heads prior to performing rituals. They also wore a vitta which was a simple fillet used to bind the hair. According to Festus, a Roman historian, they wore 6 braids in their hair which were called sex crines, an ancient hairstyle.4 They also wore a stola, which was a long, pleated dress, usually sleeveless, which only upper-class women and the Vestals were allowed to wear. It was forbidden for a common woman to wear a stola.5
The temple of Vesta was built by Numa, the religious founder of Rome, in 710 BCE. The Temple was situated in the northern part of Palatine Hill, in the Forum. The House of the Vestal Virgins was directly behind the Temple. Her sacred fire in her divine temple was placed in the middle of the city, since Vesta was seen as the center of the universe. It was a rounded temple with pillars and a domed roof. The sacred fire was on an altar in the middle of the temple. It is said the original temple was modeled on a primitive hut by King Numa because Vesta represented the earth.6 Also, to the left of the door to the temple stood an oak tree on which locks of hair from all initiates were hung.7 The altar inside the temple was circular to match the shape of the temple itself.
In excavations that took place at a fountain in the Atrium Vestae, the house of the Vestals, a triangular pedestal was found that had reliefs sculpted on each side. One side showed a tree and under it was an altar upon which a fire burned. This could represent the Temple of Vesta and the oak tree next to it. Another side depicted a nude female standing with her back showing, her arms stretched up and out towards the sky. This could represent a Vestal priestess. And on the third side is a candelabrum which could represent fire. The Vestals were also known to have a sacred grove at the foot of the Palatine Hill. It was thought to be an oak grove, and in analysis of the charred embers from the sacred fire pieces of oak branches were found, supporting the theory.
Adjoining the temple to the rear was the House of the Vestals. Upon entering the House in the Atrium Vestae, you first see a long, rectangular hall with the Palladium in the center. To the back are the apartments of the Vestals, and the baths.8 At the east end stood the mill room where salt was ground, which the Vestals used during sacrifices. A relief on a pedestal found in the Forum shows a Vestal with a box of salt attending a sacrifice.9
The sacred fire of Vesta was to remain burning at all times to "hold up an image of Eternal Power". It is said that the main religious purpose of the Vestals was the purification and storage of flour, which was thought to represent the food storage of Rome. Vesta's fire burned not only in her sacred temple but also in the hearth of each Roman’s home, representing the preservation of the empire. The goddess Vesta was sometimes referred to with the title of virgo, and also mater, which was a term commonly used to refer to the Goddess meaning mother. Although P. Watson, a modern author, says that the title virgo was given to the priestesses, and the term mater may not necessarily have stood only for mother, but also Matron, or Matriarch.10 This was seen to connect Vesta with the two types of Roman woman.
The first Vestal ever is known to have been Rhea Silvia, legendary mother to Romulus and Remus. The story is that she was the daughter of the Alban King Numitor. After her father died, her uncle forced her to become a Vestal to ensure that she would have no sons to threaten his position of power. In the myth, however, she was miraculously impregnated by the god Mars and gave birth to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. This myth suggests that the cult of the Vestals was in existence before Rome. A Vestal is mother to the founders of Rome; therefore she could be seen as the Mother of Rome.11
The Vestals were said to make salt cakes called The Mola Salsa Wafers. These were used as an offering and looked upon as a bloodless sacrifice. These were made from parched spelt which was a type of wheat grown in mountainous regions. The spelt was roasted and ground into flour. These wafers were made three times a year. They also made something called muries, which, as Festus describes, consisted of impure salt ground with a mortar and pestle, thrown into earthenware and baked, then mixed with water to use in rituals.12
The Goddess Vesta had her great celebration, called the Vestalia, in the summer. Festivities commenced on June 9 and lasted till the 15th. The Vestals would make the sacred Mola Salsa Wafer for this festival, using water carried in consecrated jugs from a holy spring. The water was never permitted to come into contact with the earth between the spring and the baking of the cake, as this was seen to take away its sacred nature. The Mola Salsa Wafers were then cut into slices and offered to Vesta. During the Vestalia only women were allowed to enter Vesta's temple for worship. When they arrived, they removed their shoes and made simple food offerings to the Goddess. On the last day of the festival, a cleansing of the shrine took place. This is when the ash pit, where the ashes from the altar were put, was cleaned out.13
The Vestals were also involved in other rituals around Rome; some for other gods, and state rituals were often observed and organized by the Vestals. They participated in the rites of Bona Dea in December. These were women's mystery rites so only women could attend. They decorated the hall in which the rites were held with plants and flowers and had a small altar in front of their goddess statue. This altar held the vessels from which the goddess would eat and drink. The Vestals and the other women would drink wine, dance and be merry all night. They participated in the festival Argei by throwing straw dolls into the Tiber. They also led the New Year rites during which they would perform purifications within the temple by replacing the old laurel branches with new ones and would also relight the sacred fire, symbolizing the fresh start of the New Year.14 It is said that a ceremony of "rekindling the fire" was performed every year on March 1st. The fire was said to be renewed by the sun. They used a bronze bowl to reflect the sun onto the dry kindling that reignited the fire.15
Water was also sacred during ceremonies to Vesta. Each morning the shrine of Vesta was sprinkled and purified with water. There were rules as to where the water could come from. They could obtain water from a spring or running stream, but never water that ran through pipes. The vessel this sacred water was carried in was called the "Futile". This was a vase with a wide mouth that came to a point at the end so that it could not stand. The sacred vessels used in the rites if Vesta were made of simple materials and were mostly vessels of earthenware, said to serve as a reminder of the simple origin of the faith.16
Since these famous priestesses were so loved, they had many privileges as well. They were allowed to be carried about the city in a litter, usually only done by the royal community; they also could spare the life of someone about to be executed. They were often entrusted with wills, treaties and other important state documents. The Vestals were deeply revered and were seen as trustworthy; their opinions were highly respected in the community. They also had special physicians if they became sick. Their horses wore metal discs around their necks denoting their owners. It is said that when a girl entered the life of a Vestal, she became free of male guardianship, which enabled her to make her own financial decisions, buy and sell property and free slaves, among many other liberties.17
Given that they were so highly regarded and trusted, penalties for wrong-doing on the part of a Vestal were extremely severe. This is said to have been because the people of Rome feared Vesta's vengeance. According to records, only twenty two Vestals were said to have betrayed their vows. Some unfaithful virgins were whipped to death. Later in Rome, they were buried alive. When being buried alive, there was a sort of funeral ceremony in which they were led to an underground chamber, which contained a bed, milk, water, oil, a lamp and bread.18 There was also a case of a Vestal being severely whipped for letting the sacred fire go out. It is said that upon this happening, a High Vestal named Aemilia said a prayer to Vesta and then tore off a piece of her clothing and threw it upon the flameless altar, whereupon a fire emerged from the ashes.19
Throughout the Roman Empire, certain emperors were kinder to the Vestals than others. For example under the reign of Augustus the Vestals were taken seriously and were highly revered. He even reinstated some of the ancient rituals that had fallen into disuse. Other emperors such as Domitian and Nero didn’t regard the Vestals so highly. Emperor Domitian sent the chief Vestal, Cornelia, to be buried alive on a charge of breaking her vows of virginity, but didn’t allow her to defend herself. Some think this act was a way for Domitian to make his reign illustrious.20
Towards the end of the empire, around 364 CE, the last of the Vestals, recorded as Cornelia Concordia, became a Christian. As a way of securing this, and as a last act of taking away the life of Rome, she was forced to erase her name from a pedestal on which her statue stood. In 375 CE, the emperor Gratian abolished the functions of the Vestals, and in 382 CE, he closed their temple. The Romans fought for their right to their “old religion” and for their Vestals, but the Christian church was too strong, and eventually took over all of Rome.21
The Vestals were in power for about a thousand years, and their reputation and sacred story is fascinating. Ovid, Roman poet and mythologist, says "Do not understand Vesta as anything other than a living flame". From what I’ve learned about the goddess Vesta and her priestesses is that Vesta represented the vital life-source of Rome, as she essentially gave birth to Rome through her first priestess, Rhea Silvia. This shows the goddess’s importance in Roman culture. Her sacred flame was the life of the city, and She the guardian of the city. When I visited Rome and the Temple of Vesta along with the house of the Vestals, I noted that the sacred energy of that central point of power is palpable. You can really feel the importance and center of life that the Goddess Vesta and her priestesses represented.
“Mother Vesta, the mysterious Goddess of whom no statue was ever made” – Ovid
Words and Images © Tara L. Reynolds, 2012